State Natural Reserve
The mission of California State Parks is
to provide for the health, inspiration and
education of the people of California by helping
to preserve the state’s extraordinary biological
diversity, protecting its most valued natural and
cultural resources, and creating opportunities
for high-quality outdoor recreation.
At times we saw bands
of elk, deer, and antelope
in such numbers that they
actually darkened the
plains for miles, and
looked in the distance
California State Parks supports equal access.
Prior to arrival, visitors with disabilities who
need assistance should contact the park
at (661) 764-6881. This publication can be
made available in alternate formats. Contact
email@example.com or call (916) 654-2249.
CALIFORNIA STATE PARKS
P.O. Box 942896
Sacramento, CA 94296-0001
For information call: (800) 777-0369
(916) 653-6995, outside the U.S.
711, TTY relay service
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Tule Elk State Natural Reserve
8653 Station Road
Buttonwillow, CA 93206
© 2012 California State Parks
like great herds of cattle.”
Description of the Central Valley in 1850,
from the Memoirs of Edward Bosqui
t the south end of the San Joaquin
Valley, Tule Elk State Natural Reserve
protects a small herd of tule (toó-lee) elk,
an endemic California subspecies once
hunted nearly to extinction.
After the moose, elk are the second
largest members of the deer family
(Cervidae) in North America.
Three subspecies of elk (Cervus elaphus
also known as Cervus canadensis) still
survive in the United States—Roosevelt elk,
Rocky Mountain elk and tule elk. Roosevelt
elk, the largest, can weigh up to 1,000
pounds. Rocky Mountain elk are about 85%
of that size; they have grown to become the
largest grazing population in the country.
California’s tule elk are about half the size
of the Roosevelt elk and lighter in color,
with shorter coats and larger teeth. Average
mature males stand five feet tall at the
shoulder and weigh 500 pounds. Females
are about 2/3 of male size.
ELK population decline
Tule elk once dominated the deer and
pronghorn population that also grazed in
the San Joaquin Valley. Estimated at more
than half a million animals before 1849, tule
elk originally ranged from Shasta County
C. Hart Merriam photo courtesy of The Bancroft Library
Yokuts family in front of tule summer hut, June 1903
For at least 8,000 years, indigenous people (later called the Southern Valley Yokuts)
used the abundant resources of the area’s waterways, created by snowmelt runoff from
the surrounding mountains. Today these watercourses are known as the lower Kings,
Kaweah, Kern and Tule rivers; Tulare, Buena Vista and Kern lakes; and their connecting
Yokuts people lived in a large village called Tulamniu on the northwestern shore of
what was once Buena Vista Lake. Depending on seasonal rainfall and mountain runoff,
the lake covered from 60 to 150 square miles. Its tule rush reeds provided the Yokuts
building materials for their houses and boats, and the starchy tule roots and seeds were
edible. The Yokuts also hunted a variety of game animals. After Spanish settlers and
missionaries came and claimed their lands, many Yokuts died from unfamiliar European
diseases. Those who survived left their homes along Buena Vista Lake.
The people who claimed the Yokuts land sold it to Henry Miller, Charles Lux and
James Crocker in 1868; the lake was drained for farmland. Many Southern Valley Yokuts
descendants still live in the area and observe their ancient customs and traditions.
ideal grazing range
for the tule elk.
decline in the
the arrival of
with both native
San Luis NWR
the state’s elk
they began killing
Tule Elk SNR
them for hide and
Wind Wolves Preserve
and after the
Gold Rush, new
residents’ demand for elk meat increased.
in the north to the base of the Tehachapi
By the time elk hunting was banned by the
Mountains in the south, and from west of
State Legislature in 1873, the tule elk was
the Sierra Nevada to the central Pacific
believed to be extinct.
coast. Tule elk normally form “gangs” of 40
to 60 animals, but some northern Central
Preserving the tule Elk
Valley herds were thought to number in
Cattle rancher Henry Miller led a movement
Depending on the availability and quality
to protect any remaining tule elk by
of vegetation, each tule elk needs several
providing 600 acres of open range (near
acres of forage to thrive. California’s lush
today’s preserve) and rewarding his workers
RANGE OF CALIFORNIA TULE ELK
who informed on anyone disturbing the
elk. In 1874, Miller’s tip led game warden
A.C. Tibbets to one lone pair hiding in the
tules near Buena Vista Lake. An 1895 count
showed 28 surviving tule elk. Those elk
propagated until the herd on Miller’s land
grew so large that they began to damage
his crops and fences. In 1914 Miller
asked California’s Fish and Game
Commission to relocate the elk from
his 600-acre preserve.
The need to preserve the tule elk
resulted in a legislated elk sanctuary.
In 1932 the State Park Commission
purchased 953 acres for a preserve near
the town of Tupman. The new Tupman
Zoological Reserve was completely
fenced. The state agency then known as
the Division of Fish and Game operated
the sanctuary, rounding up free-roaming
elk. About 140 elk were finally enclosed.
The Tupman sanctuary provided the
grassland and marsh habitat needed
by tule elk; Buena Vista Slough along
the southern edge provided water.
However, when a dam was constructed
up the Kern River in 1952, the once-lush
riparian habitat along the slough began to
disappear—along with the elk population.
In 1954 management of the sanctuary
for just 41 surviving elk was turned over
to California State Parks. The Department
devised a feeding program to keep the
elk in good health; they also built artificial
ponds, so the animals could drink and
cool off during summer heat by wallowing
in mud and water.
THE TULE elk’s ANNUAL CYCLE
Antlers—Male elk have antlers that are cast off each winter and then regrown. Before antler cartilage hardens
into bone, the new antlers are covered with fuzzy “velvet,” which are blood vessels that nourish the bone growth.
Antlers in velvet are sensitive and easily damaged. Velvet dies as the bone ossifies; dried velvet is shed
before rutting season. Antler size increases each spring until the bull is about 10 years old.
Tule elk may live for as long as 20 years.
Molting—Each spring tule elk shed their thick winter coats for short, sleek,
reddish new ones. By November this new coat is fully grown and has faded
to a light buff color with a reddish-brown mane around the neck.
JULY & AUGUST
with dried velvet
Rutting—Adult bulls join the cow herds in July. Males often engage in full-fledged, head-to-head combat with
their antlers. Eventually the master bull drives all other bulls from the herd to keep rivals away from his
harem of up to 30 cows. To establish dominance, bulls will wrestle, spar with their antlers, make loud
noises called “bugling,” and wallow in mud during the mating ritual. Only about 10 percent of
bulls will mate; the unsuccessful bulls remain bachelors. When the demands of herding,
defending, fighting, breeding, and placating 30 cows eventually wear out the
master bull, he too will be driven off and replaced by fresher secondary bulls.
Calving—Calves gestate for 250 days and arrive in late spring, weighing
20 to 25 pounds. The cow leaves the herd to give birth and remains solitary
until her calf becomes strong enough to run with the herd. Within a few
weeks, the calf gains strength, speed and endurance. Calves shed their
spotted coats at about four months. Nursing continues until the cow breeds again in the autumn, even though her calf begins to graze on reeds
and grasses shortly after birth. Tule elk are ruminants (cud-chewers) with four-chambered stomachs.
Whenever the herd exceeds its ideal
number of 30-35 for this 953-acre preserve,
several elk are relocated to other open
spaces. These include nearby Carrizo
Plain National Monument, San Luis
National Wildlife Refuge, and Wind Wolves
Preserve—as well as the Cache Creek area
of Lake County. The displaced elk in turn
propagate and begin new herds.
Tule Elk Behavior
Elk behavior is most dynamic during the
summer mating season, when temperatures
may exceed 110 degrees. More pleasant
spring and autumn weather conditions also
offer good elk-spotting opportunities.
The herd shares a flexible but definite
social order. Hierarchies are established
by the elks’ direct stares or by rearing
and boxing with their forelegs. Since
cooperative herd behavior protects against
predators and ensures survival, tule elk rely
on one another for safety. Complex herd
communication involves elk senses: they
use smells, sounds and visual signs to share
information. While grazing, the animals
signal each other about possible threats to
henry Miller, cattle king
and store water to irrigate forage crops for
Heinrich Alfred Kreiser learned the
A legal battle with the Kern Land
butcher’s trade on his father’s farm in
Company over the river water rights ensued;
Germany. At age 19, Kreiser made his way to
by the time it was settled equitably in
New York with a non-transferable steamship
1877, Lux had died. Miller then partnered
ticket he’d bought from one Henry Miller.
with the Kern Land Company to finish
Aboard ship, Kreiser adopted Miller’s name.
the canal and reservoir system—then the
When gold was discovered in California
in 1848, Miller headed west via Panama. He
Buena Vista Lake was dredged and
arrived in San Francisco with six dollars in
leveed to create a reservoir for dry
his pocket in 1850. Miller immediately
periods. During wet weather,
found work and opened his own
overflow runoff traveled
butcher shop the following year.
through Miller’s Kern Valley
The young entrepreneur
Canal into the bed of Tulare
avoided wholesale meat costs
Lake, once the largest
by traveling south to buy cattle
freshwater lake in the
and herding them to San
west. Dredging, irrigation
Francisco to butcher. After
and municipal water
Miller optioned all of the
diversion caused Tulare
available cattle north of
Lake to dry up by 1899;
the Tehachapis in 1857,
its lakebed may flood
fellow butcher Charles Lux
in heavy rains.
proposed a partnership.
Miller’s canal runoff
Rather than selling meat
was used until the
products, Lux ran the
Henry Miller, ca. 1887
California Aqueduct and
partners’ cattle business while
Lake Isabella replaced it.
Miller bought up large tracts of rangeland.
Artificial Lakes Evans and Webb have now
This successful formula led to Miller and
filled in Buena Vista’s lakebed.
Lux owning or controlling millions of acres
Entrepreneur Henry Miller was
among three states and branding more than
responsible for much of the San Joaquin
a million head of cattle.
Valley’s growth in agribusiness and
Partnering with James Crocker in 1868,
livestock—as well as the initial draining of
Miller and Lux purchased 80,000 acres of
its water stores.
swampland on the Kern River, including
Henry Miller died in 1916, but his family’s
Kern and Buena Vista Lakes, to drain the
cattle business kept operating until 1964.
tule bogs and create richer farmland. The
partners built a 25-mile canal to transport
• The reserve is open to visitors only at
the park entrance. Please do not disturb
the elk or trespass on private property
for a closer look.
• Bring binoculars for a better view.
The elk range throughout the reserve.
• Except for service animals, pets are not
recommended. Dogs must be on a leash
no more than six feet long.
• All natural and cultural features are
protected by law and may not be
disturbed or removed.
• For hours, tours or information, call
(661) 764-6881 or visit www.parks.ca.gov.
Parking, the visitor center, the elk viewing
platform and the picnic area are accessible.
Assistance may be required with the ramp
Accessibility is continually improving.
For updates, visit the website at
nearby state parks
• Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park
Palmer Ave. and Highway 43
Earlimart 93219 (661) 849-3433
• Fort Tejon State Historic Park
Fort Tejon Road exit from I-5
Lebec 93243 (661) 248-6692
other wildlife species
Birders will find varied species year round at this stop along the Pacific Flyway. Raptors such as Northern harriers,
prairie falcons and ferruginous hawks hunt for small live prey by day; by night great horned and barn owls take to
the sky. The sounds of burrowing owls, loggerhead shrikes, horned larks
and greater roadrunners may be heard. Tricolored blackbirds habitually
breed in the Reserve.
Grassland-loving mammals such as coyotes, bobcats, San Joaquin
pocket mice and Heermann’s kangaroo rats may be found in the park.
Swainson’s hawks usually return to the same nest site annually, beginning in late February. They build open-platform nests
of sticks and weeds, which seldom survive their winter vacancies. Some Swainson’s hawks may fly more than 12,000 miles to
South America during migration, but these hawks that breed in the Southern San Joaquin Valley depart in early September for
their winter homes in Mexico.
During their breeding season, these raptors prefer habitats with low vegetation such as grasslands or crop fields housing
rodents, rabbits and small reptiles. Following breeding, Swainson’s hawks switch to an insect diet—especially crickets and
grasshoppers. The Swainson’s hawks do not seem to require nearby drinking water sources. California lists the Swainson’s
hawk as a threatened species.
Tule Elk State Natural
Reserve attracts reptiles
including the sideblotched lizard and
gopher snake. For
sun protection, the
spadefoot toad digs an
with its shovel-shaped
Western spadefoot toad
Photo courtesy of Sam Stewart
These former wetlands comprise part of the historic habitat
of a highly endangered species, the Buena Vista Lake
shrew. Less than four inches long and weighing under
half an ounce, these tiny mammals have beady eyes
and long, pointed snouts. Oddly, the plain black and
brown insectivores are a subspecies of the ornate
Buena Vista Lake shrew
shrew, although they are hardly ornate. In addition to their
other senses, Buena Vista Lake shrews use echolocation to detect danger and obstacles by
making high clicking noises and sensing their echoes from any nearby solid presence.
Before the 1930s, Buena Vista Lake shrews lived throughout the wetlands of the Tulare
basin. When the basin’s sloughs, lakes and marshes were drained
for farms and rangeland, this rodent’s population declined
greatly. Although their numbers had not been documented
prior to 1932, scientists believe that the shrews have lost more
than 95% of their
historic habitat. Fewer
than 30 of these shrews
are thought to exist
today, so federal
measures are being
taken to protect their